At last, we track down one of the greatest fighters of the 1980s
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IT is often said that the last thing a boxer loses is his punch. It’s a statement I’ve never agreed with. The fear of being forgotten is a battle that every fighter dreads losing. Long after any money has gone and the title belts have lost their shine, the possibility that they might still provoke debate and influence people helps in their fight for relevance. The last thing a fighter loses is their ego.
In the early 1980s, Don Curry was widely regarded as the greatest fighter on the planet, but for the past 20 years the former unified world welterweight champion has rarely been heard from and seldom seen. Rather than being revered, these days Curry is only appreciated by Youtube historians.
At his peak, the “Lone Star Cobra” jumps off the screen. Curry is poised and precise. Living up to his nickname, he rises up tall but remains elusive, his reflexes detecting every threat and opportunity. His punches are fast and accurate. His judgement of distance and timing are immaculate. He looks unbeatable.
When people declare Lloyd Honeyghan’s shocking 1986 stoppage of Curry as one of the greatest ever victories by a British fighter, they aren’t falling victim to hyperbole. It genuinely was one of the biggest shocks in boxing history. It was also the night Curry’s slide into exile really began.
The idea to track down Curry first lodged itself in my mind as I sat at the Flying Saucer bar in Fort Worth – Curry’s hometown – some five years ago. With every dead end, I began to wonder if Curry had already lost his battle. That he actually wanted to be forgotten. Bizarrely, for a man who values his privacy, the breakthrough came in the most public of forums when a local trainer mentioned that he had seen a photograph of a man looking suspiciously like Curry on Facebook. A quick search and a phone call to Curry’s best friend later, I finally had Don’s number. “Ah really? Well, that may be a good thing,” Curry, now 57, told Boxing News when informed how long it had taken to find him. “I’ve been getting rid of the angst, I’ve been resting up and I’m ready to go on my next journey. I’m great. I’m doing good.
“You know, coming down from the heights that I came from in boxing, I wanted to give myself time away to reminisce and think back over my mistakes and I wanted to understand what I did good.
“After my career I needed a little rest. Let me get out of the game and get back into society and see what’s going on. When I got back into society, I started preparing myself, this time I know what I’m doing. I got my mind right and I got my body right. In our culture, if you ain’t good at what you do ain’t nobody going to say too much about you, but if you’re good, you’re going to get some action. I learned that from boxing. I came back to the neighbourhood and sharpened up my skills. I want to be the best at coaching and training. ³
I’VE BEEN GETTING RID OF THE ANGST. I’M READY TO GO ON MY NEXT JOURNEY”
“I got a bit of medicine, I just had to take that medicine properly with boxing. I’m well now.”
The 1980s were a time of exuberance and excess and initially the economic and understated Curry was deemed to be too refined for the crude business of professional prizefighting.
Growing up in the oil rich Fort Worth basin, Curry was a teenage prodigy. By the time he turned professional as a 19-year-old, he had fought 404 times. He had lost just four. Had the USA not decided to boycott the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, Curry would likely have found himself at the centre of a bidding war for his services. Instead, the sport’s powerbrokers began to dig. Rather than looking at the evidence before their eyes, they began paying more and more attention to the whispers which had begun to circulate the industry: Curry was soft.
“Well, they found out that they were wrong,” Curry remembered, his voice a little deeper and slower. “I could agree. Coming from Texas, a southern state in America, the manners just don’t have a place in boxing. I’m coming with no idea of what a professional is supposed to be prepared with. I just came with what I had. That’s probably why people said that. If that’s what they saw, that’s what it probably was. When it came to fighting and getting in that ring, we’re throwing all that out of the window. You find a lot of characters here who are very respectful. When you come from the South and Texas, that’s just how we are brought up.”
Curry elected to stay loyal to his amateur trainer, Paul Reyes, and appointed local construction business owner Dave Gorman as his manager. Things went well. Just over three years after turning professional, Curry unified the welterweight world title by beating Marlon Starling in 1984. At a time when Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns, Larry Holmes and Michael Spinks were at their peak, it was Donald
Curry, the southern gentleman from Fort Worth, who was regarded as the best fighter on the planet. A country boy can survive.
Curry’s brutal two-round demolition of Milton Mccrory may be more spectacular, his unification victory over Starling more significant, and his stunning defeat at the hands of Honeyghan more notorious, but if the purpose of this article is to reintroduce Donald Curry to the boxing public, then his 1985 whitewash of Colin Jones in Birmingham paints the most complete picture of the man.
The graceful Texan stands amid the tumult of the partisan crowd, every inch the pristine gunslinger who saunters through the doors of the bawdy frontier town saloon and wipes the rim of his whiskey glass with an embroidered handkerchief. Too fast, too accurate and just too good for the brave – and very talented – Welshman, Curry somehow seems to emerge from the four-round clinic without so much as a drop of blood tarnishing his pale gold shorts.
“Colin Jones is a guy who had a great [reputation] when I was scheduled to fight him. This guy was a real fighter. If you go to the Olympics and represent your country and almost medal, you’ve done a good job. I’d seen Colin Jones fight Milton Mccrory and I’d always respected Milton. When me and Colin Jones fought, I was overwhelmed that Colin was kind of easy for me. It kind of surprised me. Colin had an extraordinary career and I beat him so easily, that struck me. I trained really hard for Colin and Milton Mccrory. If I’d done that right through my career I probably would never have been beaten.
“It didn’t surprise me. I just didn’t know how good I was. I just needed to keep going. I had to keep myself determined, keep motivated and keep going so that I could conquer the world. I just didn’t have that type of experience back then.”
After dodging some missiles from a hostile crowd, Curry conducts his postfight interview with a tacky crown squashing down his fashionable shag hairstyle. Tellingly, the instant ITV’S Gary Newbon lowers his microphone, Curry removes the plastic tat and walks over to greet Jones. Curry’s lack of bravado made him stand out from the crowd, but it also made him easy to avoid.
“It was kind of showing off and that’s what boxing is all about,” he said. “I know we’re supposed to entertain the crowd but at that time I was more spiritual and being more obedient to the spiritual laws rather than the boxing laws. I found out that boxing was all a game and I realised that I was participating in it. I wasn’t about all that bragging or talking about how good my skills were. I wasn’t the type to talk about how good this was or that was.”
Boxing has always attracted its share of snake oil salesmen, but as on-screen characters like Gordon Gekko and J.R Ewing glamourised the pursuit of money and the underhanded, unscrupulous methods of obtaining it, it was inevitable that the ‘Greed is Good’ mentality would gain a foothold in boxing in the 1980s. In boxing – as in business – you don’t get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate. Always the type to prefer a demonstration to a fancy sales pitch, the more business-savvy rode roughshod over Curry’s ambitions. He struck oil with the Mccrory victory in 1985, he just had no idea how to capitalise on it.
Patrons of the honky-tonks and dance halls of Fort Worth would have given short shrift to complaints about half-million-dollar pay days, but Curry’s world had changed and he began to find more sympathetic ears in the discos and nightclubs of Atlantic City and Las Vegas. Unfortunately for a 25-year-old Curry, a hungry and aggressive Honeyghan was next in line. Curry’s reign was brought to an end after six painful rounds.
It is a harsh analogy to use, but spend any time in Texas and it’s highly likely that at some point you will see a particular slogan either sprawled across a t-shirt or hung on the wall of a dive bar. Apparently a riff on an old bumper sticker, “Please God, give me one more oil boom,” it reads. “This time I promise not to piss it away.”
“I enjoyed the people coming and praising and telling me that I was great,” Curry said. “That was kind of cool. I got caught up in that too, but that’s part of the game. I was young and who doesn’t want to be praised?
“I was in the game to make money. I made $750,000 to fight Milton Mccrory. For my next fight I’m looking for a million. I know I’m not getting a million to fight Lloyd Honeyghan. I got into the game to fight for money and now I have to go back and fight for $500k? I was young and inexperienced and I got caught up in that more than anything else. I got more caught up in that than the fight. I was so frustrated and depressed going into the fight.
“It wasn’t really all a weight problem. What really caused the weight problem was that I’d just knocked out Milton Mccrory, the big hope from the Kronk Gym. He went two rounds. That was easy. I got kinda caught up in that. When Lloyd Honeyghan’s name came up: ‘Who?’ It killed my motivation.
“I’d been boxing all of my life and I didn’t even know the guy. It wasn’t that he couldn’t fight, he just had no notoriety. If I’d fought somebody with some notoriety, I would have got paid and that’s what I wanted.”
In 1986, oil prices slumped and the Texas Oil Bust began claiming victims. Curry earned his reputation during the power vacuum which existed before Mike Tyson’s stunning emergence and Sugar Ray Leonard’s return
I JUST DIDN’T KNOW HOW GOOD I WAS. I JUST NEEDED TO KEEP GOING”
to defeat Marvin Hagler, but in the same way that the glut of oil brought an end to the good times for Texas’ oil industry, the defeat to Honeyghan and sudden influx of superstars sent Curry’s stock plummeting. He was left with no option but to belatedly begin exploring markets he should have exploited earlier.
He was KO’D by Mike Mccallum in his first attempt at a 154lb world title in 1987, and although he eventually won and lost the WBC super-welterweight belt, the once elegant champion began to look more and more dishevelled. Consecutive knockout losses to Michael Nunn (for the IBF middleweight title) and Terry Norris in 1990 and 1991 respectively brought down the curtain on his career.
“I just got caught up in my own dreams and my own feelings about that [business] part of the game. Early on, I was dreaming a different dream. Back then I was dreaming of perfecting my jab and my right hand, my hook and my uppercut and on doing what I said I was going to do. That would have got me there. If I’d stayed focused on jabs, hooks, that right hand and smashing that face, I’d have been OK.
“I was still young and made some mistakes and found myself in situations that I didn’t have too much understanding of and hoping that I’d made the right choice. I was young and had no history with the business and even though I turned into a people person, I had no real experience of dealing with people either. That was a major, major scenario in my mind and my boxing career. If you’re in the entertainment business, you have to be an entertainer and talk about how I whipped this boy’s ass and things. At that time I just didn’t have that mentality.
“It doesn’t bother me now. Now that I’ve got older, I realise that I lost due to the inexperience of those around me when it came to boxing, because people with experience could see what I needed. I just didn’t have those kind of people around me. That’s what will make me a great trainer or great coach, because there were a lot of mistakes made. You may say that I had a great career but there were still a lot of mistakes made.
“If you’re talking about the ‘80s then I’m in the conversation. I’m satisfied with that. If you’re a fan of the 1980s, you can’t miss my name.”
With time on his hands, he became embroiled in a series of gaudy un-curry like incidents. In 1995 he was fully acquitted after being indicted in a drug conspiracy case, but in 1996 he did find himself briefly behind bars for failing to make child support payments. As he sought to claw back his legal costs, a sad, contrived comeback in 1997 left him beaten and embarrassed at the hands of one Emmett Linton, a fighter he trained after his first retirement from the sport. It seemed a drawn out and undignified end for one of the era’s classiest operators.
With that, Don Curry disappeared into the shadows.
“What did you find out about me that you didn’t know before you interviewed me?” Curry laughed as our conversation drew to an end.
Not enough. It is impossible to cram a life like Curry’s into a one-hour conversation and 2,000-odd words. I want to know how a quiet man dealt with both the time inside prison and the stigma that follows somebody around afterwards. I want to know more about his life in boxing exile. I want to know about everything.
Hopefully, I don’t have to wait another 20 years to find out.
RECENT TIMES: Curry [right], pictured alongside his friend, Sid Kennedy Jnr
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